I ♥ Game Theory; Let’s all be irrational, shall we?

Some nights back, my flight from Karachi to Islamabad couldn’t land due to bad weather in Islamabad and instead it had to land at Lahore airport. We waited and waited, with no official intimation of takeoff plans. Hours passed. I started feeling very hungry and so I went ahead and bought something to eat in a stylishly decorated and exorbitantly expensive eatery called “The Elbow Room”. Only after seeing the bill did I realize why the other passengers had not followed suit (no, the prices were not listed on the menu card).

Anyhow, 8 hours passed; the passengers had become very restless by then. A throng of angry people surrounded a group of hapless officials, pestering them about takeoff plans. The situation became heated and choice words (yes, the typical, sister, mother stuff) started resounding in the halls. And then came the punchline–literally: a passenger punched an official! Security officials came in and more chaos ensued.

In order to calm the situation down, (the officials had finally realized that people were hungry), food was brought forth. Trolleys with “lunch boxes” were brought out. As soon as the trolleys arrived, people attacked them. When I use the word attack, I do not use it lightly. They fell over each other to pick up boxes quickly and that too, as many boxes as a person could lay his or her hands on. The result was a disaster. It looked very ugly. Some boxes fell down and the food spilled out :(; some people ended up with more boxes than they could possibly eat, while some others ended up with none.

And right at that moment, I kid you not, my thoughts went to our venerable friends, the game-theorists. I thought about the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I could even imagine their smug faces. How happy they would be to see something like this! “See, we told ya”. Well, yeah, all right, this was a typical prisoner’s dilemma, a typical tragedy of the commons– a social dilemma.

Let me elucidate, for those who don’t know, what a prisoner’s dilemma is. Putting it simply, the prisoner’s dilemma models interaction between people, wherein participants would earn more if they cooperate. On the other hand, if each participant is thinking rationally i.e., acting to maximize selfish gain, then people would earn less overall. So in our airport situation, if everyone had cooperated with each other, the food would not have spilled and everyone would have got a lunch box, without the bitterness and ugliness.

Let me concoct some games that can make the point clear, and lay the ground for the subsequent thesis of this post. I think the titles of my games are more real and depict the situation in a more direct way than does the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Game #1: The Dissident Journalists Dilemma. Its a game about two journalists who have finally realized (perhaps they read a book by Chomsky, or more likely it was self-realization) that their entire careers have been a charade. They realize all the hullaballoo about honesty and truth seeking was mere eyewash. They have been nothing but superficial, vulgar propagandists for power. Now the question is, do they turn dissidents and finally start discussing issues that are either never reported, or always reported with an ‘imperialist’-‘corporatist’ bias? If they rebel together, they have a good chance of forcing the editor/owners of not firing them. However, if only one rebels, then he will get fired. If he works at the New York Times, he would probably end up working for the Harlem Times. His wife might leave him OR he might end up like this:

The Dissident Journalists Dilemma
The Dissident Journalists Dilemma

Game#2:  The Poor Man’s Dilemma. This game has been inspired by something that Tolstoy said about the economic system. He said that its akin to a rich man sending down poor wage-slaves to fetch coins from the bottom of the swamp, and the poor people fighting with each other over who would get the coin first. On giving the coin to the rich man, the poor man will receive a bag of goodies. The dilemma in this game is that if the poor people can get together and instead of fetching coins from the swamp, simply push the rich man himself into the swamp, they can come to possess all the bags of goodies and divide the wealth among themselves! Fantastic! However, they all need to do it together since the rich man has many security guards. If only a few choose this course of action, then they risk getting beaten up by his tough guards like this: 

The Poor Man's Dilemma
The Poor Man’s Dilemma

The rational thing in both these games would be for the journalists and the poor people to carry on as they were, and not cooperate with each other. That would be the so-called dominant strategy. If however, they choose to cooperate with each other, not only would they earn more, but also potentially change the game for good! In the case of poor people, it is clear why depositing the rich man to the bottom of the swamp would change the nature of the game. And in the case of journalists, if more and more journalists got together, then the very direction of their profession would change.  

We can model social situations using well-known games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, (and the Poor Man’s Dilemma, and the Dissident Journalists Dilemma), and other ‘games’. These are models that we use to understand the world around us. But the social world is not like the ‘physical’ world. We cannot change the law of gravity; we can’t change the realities of physics. Those are a given. But this is social life. This is what you and I create. Surely, one of the reasons the world is in its present state is because of the actions of a multitude of people across multiple eras. If the above is true, which it is, then the aim should not only be to model whatever game we observe (worthwhile effort!). Rather, we should also try and analyze if we can change the very nature of the game; and also convince each other to collectively make the ‘irrational’ choice more often! 


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I am interested in understanding the links between science models and engineering models, and whether we can design a "science" for fields that require interdisciplinary research. Specifically, my field is the design of techno-social systems. Such systems are not traditional computing systems and require an inter-disciplinary approach for their design. Generally, I am interested in modeling and simulation, and seek to apply my knowledge of the same in various domains including arts, politics, science and engineering You can reach me at rrameez@gmail.com Rameez Rahman

5 thoughts on “I ♥ Game Theory; Let’s all be irrational, shall we?”

  1. Very interesting story. This reminded me of this picture:

    Thousands of Jews waiting to be executed when there were a just few dozens guards. Sure if there were enough heroes to revolt the rest would follow but, in these circumstances heroes die.

    I think the solution is to educate people to, not to be a heroes, but to not to accept to be slaves, this way we might have no need for heroes anymore.

  2. I have been in many situations akin to your airline experience and am somewhat surprised and impressed at how orderly people tend to behave–unlike your experience. This is very different from the second situation in which, I agree, people are generally short-sighted and cowardly. Keeping to the first scenario, I have often thought that the explanation for the more “cooperative” behavior these days may be related to 9/11, at least in the U.S. Things might be very different elsewhere.

    1. Yes, I think fear of being detained and slapped with some “terrorism” charge could be one reason.

      I think it also relates to how much faith people have in the “systems” that are in place. So for example in Pakistan, people are generally disillusioned, and recognize, rightly or wrongly, that they have to fight for themselves in order to get some response. If people are secure in the knowledge that eventually things would work out, then they tend to be patient, I think.

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